Immigration Reform 2013: Bill Or No Bill, America Will Still Have a Farm Labor Crisis


We need to pass immigration reform, for many excellent and important reasons. One reason is the farm-labor shortage brought on by reductions in the number of illegal immigrants coming to the U.S. No matter what Congress does with the Gang of Eight's current immigration bill, our nation's agricultural employment needs will not be met and solutions will need to be found. 

National Public Radio reports, "Since the late 1990s, there has been a slow but steady decline in the number of rural Mexicans migrating north. Agriculture economist Ed Taylor at the University of California, Davis, says that decline has little to do with U.S. immigration policy." That is, dangerous border crossings, improved economic situations in countries of origin, and xenophobic fear-mongering in the United States mean the agricultural sector will have to do more with less. 


Guest workers were always going to be included in immigration reform. If we're being honest, the goal of immigration reform, primarily, is safeguarding the economy and domestic safety of the the United States. Other issue like family, women's issues, and geographically-informed ethnic immigration issues are a distant second. To that point, the fourth legislative pillar listed in the Gang of Eight's immigration-reform proposal is, "Establish an improved process for admitting future workers to serve our nation’s workforce needs, while simultaneously protecting all workers." Unfortunately, this pillar is being built on a shaky foundation and there may not be enough "future workers" to fill the needs of our economy.

How do we know this?

Part of the fourth legislative pillar states that the proposed legislation would "allow employers to hire immigrants if it can be demonstrated that they were

According to a recent report by the Partnership for a New American Economy and the Center for Global Development, as detailed by the Washington Post, out of the 6,500 farm workers North Carolina needed for the recent season, "only seven Americans stuck it out." 

Source: CGD and the Partnership for a New American Economy

In other words, the American desire to work in this field (literally in the field) "is basically nonexistent. Every year from 1998 to 2012, at least 130,000 North Carolinians were unemployed. Of those, the number who asked to be referred [for employment] to NCGA was never above 268 (and that number was only reached in 2011, when 489,095 North Carolinians were unemployed). The share of unemployed asking for referrals never breached 0.09%." Over the course of this study, 1998-2012, on average after five months of employment only "10% of native-born workers" remained on the job, compared to 90% of non-native workers.

Findings regarding pay scales are also problematic. The pay scale necessary to attract American labor isn't available and, native interest in agriculture jobs remained sluggish even when wages increased relative to other jobs, which "suggests that similar-in-scale wage increases wouldn’t spur increased demand for these jobs on the part of native workers." And overly increasing wages to attract the number of native workers needed would serve to make growing food unprofitable, resulting in job loss.

So how do we fill the fields given limited labor? Solutions are few and far between. I recently spoke with Heiko Beckers, a personal friend who has given me lots of insight into the world of large-scale agricultural machinery.


Image courtesy the artist.

UC-Davis cost studies, according to Beckers, show that for deleafing a vineyard the cost for is $100/acre manually and between $35 and $40/acre with a machine. In addition, farmers who mechanize reduce the concerns they have with farm labor. 

Beckers, in short, claimed that farmers have four main concerns: They are worried the immigration-reform bill won't give them enough labor in time for work needs. Farm labor is becoming too expensive because of the shortage, because farmers push each other to raise wages. Under the stricter immigration laws, farmers get fined for employing undocumented workers which makes it even harder to find labor. And finally, many of the farm laborers who get deported moved from farming to the construction and building industries, where the pay is better. 

Beckers, himself a skilled-labor immigrant from Germany, points out that this is America and that "if the dollar sign is under the line, that's what counts." These are people we're dealing with and the human toll needs to be accounted for. What mechanization does for American industry is critical, but it should be noted that mechanization on large farms will serve to imperil small-farm operations. A just immigration solution that takes into account all these points of view and areas of interest, while maintaining integrity and respect for the workers, is what is needed.